Verb Tenses

The term Tense is used to refer to any of the twelve different verb constructions that result when the three logical time divisions (present, past, and future) are integrated with the four aspects of verb.

Aspect refers to the state of action of a verb. There are four types of verb aspect:

What then are Verb Tenses?

Verb Tenses therefore refer to any of the form of a verbOpens in new window that may be used to show the time of the action or an event or state of being expressed by the verb.

There are three main verb tenses in English: present, past and future. These tenses tell us how an action relates to the flow of time.

The present, past and future tenses are divided into four aspects: the simple, progressive, perfect and perfect progressive. Thus, English has 12 verb tenses.

English verb tenses give many details about time and action such as:

  • Is the action finished?
  • How long did the action happen?
  • Was the action repeated?
  • Did the action happen at a known or unknown time?
  • Is the action a habit?
  • Is the action planned or spontaneous?

We are going to give examples of all 12 verb tenses, with illustrations in the chart below, using the first-person singular form of sing.

Important Hint! 

Note that to form other verb tenses other than the first-person singular form, you have to add a form of have, be or will in front of the main verb. These are called helping, or auxiliary verbsOpens in new window.

What's this?
Simple AspectProgressive AspectPerfect AspectPerfect–progressive Aspect
PresentWe singWe are singingWe have sungWe have been singing
PastWe sangWe were singingWe had sungWe had been singing
FutureWe will singWe will be singingWe will have sungWe will have been singing

Emphasis on the Three Kinds of Tenses

1.  Present Tense

The Present TenseOpens in new window is a form of verb that indicates action that is happening at the moment or at the time of speaking. [action that happens now]

The most confusing feature of the present tense for learners of English is that the simple present tenseOpens in new window does not really indicate present time actions. Its main expressions include:

Making factual statements or universal truths:
  • A mile is 5,280 feet.
  • The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
Expressing habitual actions:
  • John reads his bible first thing in the morning.
  • This sentence describes what John normally does first thing in the morning. It does not mean John is presently reading his bible now. The sentence would still maintain its validity if John had not read his bible for some time.
Expressing predictable future events or actions:
  • The new NBA season starts tonight.
  • We leave for Memphis tomorrow.

2.  The Past Tense

The Past TenseOpens in new window is a form of verb that indicates action that took place in the past. The simple pastOpens in new window, being one of the aspects of English past tense, describes action that was completed before the present moment in time—event or action that has already taken place.

A Point in Past Time

The past tense can refer to a single point in past time, as:

  • I took the metro bus to school yesterday.
  • She arrived in New York last night.
  • The past tense also indicates a span of time in the past, as long as the action was completed before the present, as:
  • Mr. Briggs taught in St. Mary’s High School for over a decade.
  • She visited her country house last December.

3.  The Past Tense

The Future TenseOpens in new window is that aspect of verbs that indicate actions that will happen in future time. The simple future tenseOpens in new window, being one of the aspects of future tense, consists of the helping verb will, followed by the base form of the main verb and indicate an action that will happen in the future.

Examples include:
  • I can take him to see the apartment.
  • I could take him to see the apartment.
  • I may take him to see the apartment.
  • I must take a taxi to the airport.

Each of these three kinds of tenses (the present, past and future tenses) has four aspects:

  • Affirmative statement. — used to show agreement
  • Negative statement. — used to show disagreement
  • Interrogative statement. — used to ask question
  • Interrogative–Negative statement. — used to ask question and show disagreement.